By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Friday's renewal of the $600,000 Clark Handicap (G1) at Churchill Downs might not be the
strongest in recent memory, but the dozen runners set to contest the 1 1/8-mile
race figure to put on a competitive and exciting show.
From a Beyer speed figure perspective, the horse to beat
is clearly #2 Tom's d'Etat. With
five consecutive triple-digit numbers under his belt, he's consistent and
generally the fastest horse in the field. Last time out, he was a dominant
winner of the 1 1/8-mile Fayette Stakes (G2) at Keeneland, employing
pace-tracking tactics to score by 4 ¼ lengths with a career-best 106 Beyer.
Tom's d'Etat has shown an affinity for Churchill Downs
and will retain the services of jockey Joel Rosario, who is 3-for-3 aboard the
six-year-old son of Smart Strike. But there are reasons to believe Tom's d'Etat
might be vulnerable in the Clark.
For starters, Tom's d'Etat has come up short when facing
top-class competition in the past. He was soundly beaten in the Pegasus World
Cup Invitational (G1), and he weakened to fourth in the Woodward Stakes (G1)
after challenging in the homestretch. He was no match for McKinzie when runner-up
in the Alysheba Stakes (G2) and faded to third after setting the pace in the
Stephen Foster Handicap (G2).
More significantly, Tom's d'Etat could face a challenging
pace scenario in the Clark Handicap. This race is loaded with front-runners and
speed horses, including #4 Major Cabbie,
#6 Fact Finding, #7 Mr. Buff, #9 Mr Freeze, and #11
Pioneer Spirit. While Tom's d'Etat has shown the ability to rate off the
pace and finish strongly, doing so while breaking from post two in the Clark
could bury Tom's d'Etat inside and behind runners.
For these reasons, I'm tempted to side with the
tried-and-true Churchill Downs specialist #11
Seeking the Soul. Conditioned by Dallas Stewart, Seeking the Soul has
cracked the trifecta in 10 of his 12 starts at Churchill Downs, scoring graded
stakes victories in the 2017 Clark Handicap, 2018 Ack Ack Stakes (G3), and 2019
Stephen Foster Handicap (G2).
In the Stephen Foster, Seeking the Soul reiterated his
affinity for Churchill Downs with a determined victory. Reserved in mid-pack,
the son of Perfect Soul produced a well-timed rally to defeat Quip by a neck,
while Tom's d'Etat checked in two lengths behind in third place.
Seeking the Soul subsequently embarked on a fruitless
three-race campaign in California. Away from his favorite track, Seeking the
Soul could finish no better than fourth in a trio of Grade 1 stakes, though I
would argue he ran better than it appears on a couple of occasions.
Seeking the Soul's losing streak began in the 1 ¼-mile
Pacific Classic (G1), where he never fired at all and trudged home in seventh
place. Drawing a line through this no-show brings us to his fourth-place finish
in the 1 1/8-mile Awesome Again Stakes (G1). Although he was beaten 8 ½
lengths, Seeking the Soul still managed to post a respectable 98 Beyer while
rallying into a slow pace over a speed-favoring track. Take note, he finished
just a length behind Pacific Classic winner and future Breeders' Cup Classic
(G1) third-place finisher Higher Power.
Speaking of the Breeders' Cup Classic, I thought Seeking
the Soul ran reasonably well to finish sixth. The deep and tiring track wasn't
favorable to his late-running style, and the 1 ¼-mile distance likely stretched
the limits of his stamina, yet he still managed to out-finish Grade 1 winners
Code of Honor, Yoshida, and War of Will down the lane.
Cutting back to 1 1/8 miles and returning to Churchill
Downs could trigger a return to peak form for Seeking the Soul. There's
certainly plenty of pace to set up his late-running style, and his
disappointing California campaign should ensure that he starts at a fair price
in the wagering. He's my selection to win.
Mocito Rojo is worth considering. A winning machine with 17 victories from
26 starts, Mocito Rojo rattled off five consecutive stakes victories between
March and September, culminating with a hard-fought triumph against graded
stakes winners Silver Dust and Sir Anthony in the 1 1/8-mile Lukas Classic (G3)
at Churchill Downs.
Mocito Rojo encountered a sloppy, sealed track in the
Fayette Stakes and spun his wheels to finish a distant seventh behind Tom's
d'Etat, but I'm tempted to forgive this performance. If he catches a dry track
for the Clark, Mocito Rojo can settle a few lengths off the lead and come
running for a major share of the purse. Just in keep in mind there's rain in
the forecast for Churchill Downs this week, and if the track comes up wet, I'll
be looking elsewhere for exotic contenders.
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Clark
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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.